It was 1990 when Groundwork Coffee Co.'s founder, Richard Karno, started his rare-book-and-cafe business by roasting his own coffee. At that time, the demand from local restaurants became so great that he began roasting around the clock. Shortly thereafter, Groundwork went on to become one of the first certified organic coffee roasters in Southern California, focusing on sustainable, relationship-based and organic coffee sourcing. Today, Groundwork Coffee Co. has pioneered its way to become the largest organic coffee roaster in L.A., with seven cafe locations distributing whole beans and coffee extracts nationally in places like Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and REI.
Aspen Times Weekly: You began roasting coffee organically over a decade ago. Why did you feel so strongly about pursuing an organic business when it was such a rarity at the time?
Richard Karno: At that time, it was pretty well known in the industry that coffee is the third-most sprayed agricultural crop in the world after tobacco and cotton. Conventional coffee trees on large institutional farms are treated with a combination of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. While it's not proven that these chemicals find their way into the roasted bean, they definitely find their way into the eco-systems of the areas they are grown in. I didn't what my business to contribute to the problem.
ATW: In your experience, how has the coffee business grown or changed in the last decade?
RK: In the late 1980s and early 1990s the coffee industry was doing such a terrible job on the whole that the only way to go was up. This allowed for a lot of experimentation by smaller entrepreneurs who were trying to make better coffee and serve it in a more interesting environment. Today, coffee is a more mature business, but I'm also a little concerned the industry is in danger of becoming more sizzle than steak as the theatre of coffee preparation gets more absurd and exclusionary to the average customer.
ATW: In your opinion, do you find consumers more apt to choose a locally sourced, organic product that follows the farm-to-table method as opposed to a mass-manufactured product like Starbucks?
RK: I don't know how many consumers are that conscientious about their buying decisions, but companies like Starbucks have done an excellent job of raising the bar on coffee from its very lows in the 1970s to today. Many people don't like taking risks on local establishments; the key is to cultivate your locals and let your reputation spread organically — pardon the pun.
ATW: What coffee(s) do you plan to bring to the Cocktail Classic here in Snowmass? What message do you hope to get across during your tasting?
RK: I'm going to bring a representative sample of a light, medium and dark roast as well as the Java Juice espresso concentrate used as a replacement for hot espresso in blended drinks. If there is a point to be made, it's that given the amount of high-quality coffee available today, it's very easy to offer good coffee and well-made coffee drinks to customers. There's simply no excuse for making lousy coffee.
ATW: If there were one thing you would want customers to know about organically roasted coffee, what would it be?
RK: I'd want them to know that coffee is really a miraculous crop and that there are literally billions of coffee trees required to grow the beans necessary to meet the worldwide demand. Yet, despite all the steps and variables, we are in kind of a golden age of coffee. Customers now can choose certified organic coffee where every step in the supply chain is regulated and certified to ensure that no chemicals or agents come in contact. Simply put, life is too short for bad coffee.